Tatyana Nikolayeva’s mother was a professional pianist who had studied with Alexander Goldenweiser, with whom Tatyana also studied from the age of thirteen, continuing her lessons with him when she went to the Moscow Conservatory. While studying there, Nikolayeva won first prize in a competition held in Moscow to commemorate the death of Alexander Scriabin thirty years before. Three years after graduating from Goldenweiser’s class, Nikolayeva graduated also from the composition class of Evgeny Golubev; and whilst still at the Conservatory she won second prize at the first International People’s Competition in Prague.
In 1950 Nikolayeva won first prize in the Bach Competition in Leipzig. On the jury that year was composer Dmitri Shostakovich who was greatly impressed with Nikolayeva’s performances of Bach’s preludes and fugues of which she could play any from memory. Shostakovich wrote his set of Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 for her between October 1950 and March 1951. Nikolayeva telephoned him every day during the period of composition, going to his home to hear him play the most recently written prelude and fugue, and gave the first performance of the complete work in Leningrad in 1952. Their friendship lasted until the day of his death, more than twenty-five years later. The State Prize she won at that time was in recognition of her services as a pianist and also for the composition of a piano concerto. From 1959 Nikolayeva taught at the Moscow Conservatory and has left a generation of devoted students including Nikolai Lugansky. She was also a composer. Her works include two piano concertos, twenty-four concert studies for piano and a piano sonata as well as an arrangement for solo piano of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
Nikolayeva had a career as teacher and performer in the USSR, but it was not until the early 1980s that she began to perform in Europe, Japan and America, eventually playing in more than thirty-five countries. She regularly visited London to give concerts and master-classes and appeared at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ playing Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major Op. 102. Often her programmes would be of major works such as Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations BWV 988, Die Kunst der Fuge BWV 1080 or Das wohtemperierte Klavier complete (performed over four evenings). Her repertoire was vast, with some fifty works for piano and orchestra ranging from Bach to Bartók and Shostakovich, all the keyboard works of Bach, all the piano sonatas by Beethoven, plus major compositions by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Arensky, Liadov and Stravinsky. She had a phenomenal memory and travelled abroad without music scores. On one occasion, when she came to rehearse Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major Op. 44 she asked the conductor if they were playing the abbreviated version by Alexander Siloti, which she was expecting to play. They were not, so Nikolayeva launched into a performance of the original version. In the 1990s she played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 Op. 40 in America and it was during a performance in San Francisco of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 that she suffered a stroke. She continued to play to the end of the first half of the programme, but had to cancel the rest of the performance. She died two weeks later.
With her huge repertoire and popularity in her homeland, Nikolayeva made many recordings for the state label Melodya in the USSR which were issued on 78rpm discs and LP. Early recordings on 78rpm discs include an excellent Moment Musical in E minor Op. 16 No. 4 by Rachmaninov and Chopin’s early Variations Brillantes Op. 12. In the early 1950s Nikolayeva also recorded for the Supraphon label in Czechoslovakia, and these recordings deserve reissue, particularly Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 with the Czech Philharmonic and Konstantin Ivanov and a recital disc containing an excellent Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV 903 by Bach, Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 3 Op. 28, some of the recently written preludes and fugues by Shostakovich and three of her own concert études. Of her Melodya recordings, the most important are Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major Op. 44 with Nikolai Anosov (issued on compact disc by Dante), Medtner’s Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 3 with Yevgeny Svetlanov, an excellent Piano Concerto No. 5 Op. 55 by Prokofiev with Rozhdestventsky, a 1966 disc of Arensky and Liadov piano solos, an excellent 1976 disc of Liadov piano music including a superlative Barcarolle Op. 44, a disc of unusual solo works by Tchaikovsky, and Glinka’s Trio and Viola Sonata with Rudolf Barshai. She also recorded the Piano Sonatas No. 4 in F minor Op. 22 and No. 7 in B flat major Op. 65 by her composition teacher Yevgeny Golubev for Melodya. In 1975 Nikolayeva performed all the Bach keyboard concertos, including those for two and three keyboards, in Moscow. Recordings of these performances were released in Europe by Ariola-Eurodisc. Later LPs from the 1980s include Hindemith’s Four Temperaments for piano and orchestra and Haydn’s Piano Concertos in D major and G major, both conducted by Saulius Sondeckis.
Keeping track of Nikolayeva on compact disc is very difficult as she recorded for many labels and many of her Melodya recordings made in Russia have been licensed to various European and American labels. Nikolayeva first appeared on compact disc in the early days of digital recording. In the early 1980s she recorded two recitals of Bach and Das wohltemperierte Klavier complete in Japan. These were released on the JVC label, (and later Mezhdunarodna Kniga) as was a 1977 recording of the two- and three-part inventions of Bach. Many Soviet recordings have been licensed to European companies including Harmonia Mundi, who issued Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D major and Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat K. 482. Nikolayeva recorded many works two or three times including the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 and Das wohltemperierte Klavier of Bach. There have been at least three versions of Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations BWV 988 on compact disc: the 1970 Melodya recording reissued by Relief in Switzerland, a 1987 live performance from Stockholm issued by Bluebell and a 1992 studio recording by Hyperion.
An interesting disc on the Berlin Classics label contains a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Kurt Masur. Made in April 1959, it was apparently Masur’s first recording. Nikolayeva gives a stately performance reminiscent of Emil Gilels. It is a musically satisfying rendering, not used as a vehicle for display.
The French label Vogue has reissued some fascinating Nikolayeva repertoire in its Archives Sovietiques Series including Richard Strauss’s Concerto for piano left hand Op. 73 (Parergon), Stravinsky’s Capriccio for piano and orchestra, and a 1950 performance of Tchaikovsky’s Concert Fantasy for piano and orchestra in G major Op. 56 conducted by Kyrill Kondrashin. Most interesting of the Vogue releases is a coupling of a live performance of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor from 1967 and Henri Dutilleux’s Piano Sonata recorded live in 1978. The Liszt sonata is one of the most musically satisfying on disc with Nikolayeva understanding perfectly the whole structure and the relationship between the sections of this work.
During her visits to London in the 1990s Nikolayeva recorded for the Hyperion label some of her core repertoire: Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations BWV 988 and a masterly performance of Die Kunst der Fuge BWV 1080, Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues Op. 87, Piano Sonata No. 2 Op. 61, Twenty-four Preludes Op. 34 and his three Fantastic Dances Op. 5. She also recorded the complete Shostakovich preludes and fugues for BBC television in Scotland. Her previous recording of the Shostakovich preludes and fugues, made for Melodya three years earlier in 1987, was available on compact disc and is in some ways preferable as the Hyperion recording is extremely reverberant. Many other Russian recordings have appeared on compact disc on the Melodya label or have been licensed to other labels, such as the complete Beethoven piano sonatas which were recorded in concert at the Moscow Conservatory in 1983 and issued in Britain by Olympia in 1994 (and again by Scribendum in 2004). Olympia also issued Nikolayeva’s excellent recordings of the first three partitas of Bach which were made in 1980.
Over five days in May 1991 whilst in Switzerland, Nikolayeva recorded three discs for the Relief label: one of Schumann, one of Tchaikovsky (including the Piano Sonata in G major Op. 37), and one of works by Borodin, Liadov and Prokofiev.
Nikolayeva appeared as volume fifteen of BMG’s Russian Piano School Series where she plays Schumann’s Drei Romanzen Op. 28 recorded in 1983, Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in B flat Op. 84 and her own transcription of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, both recorded in the mid-1960s. She recorded her transcription of Peter and the Wolf again in 1991 for JVC in Japan. It is included on a delightful disc of children’s pieces with other Nikolayeva compositions We Draw Animals Op. 31, Eight Little Pieces Op. 27, Little Baroque Style Variations in G major and Album for Children. This disc is one of her best as it captures her extraordinary range of tone and touch and a great deal of her wit and humour. Many of her JVC recordings are only available in Japan; another excellent one being a disc of Bach’s twelve Little Preludes, six Little Preludes and other miscellaneous works.
A disc on the Novalis label of two Beethoven sonatas claims to be her last recording. It was made in August 1993 in Blumenstein, Switzerland, the location where her recordings for Relief were made. Fortunately however, recordings of Nikolayeva continue to be released. Recently a recital from the Salzburg Festival of 1987 was issued, and the Scribendum label has licensed her Melodya recordings of the complete Das wohltemperierte Klavier from the early 1970s, complete French Suites from 1984 and English Suites Nos 1 and 4 from 1965.
Nikolayeva was one of the great pianists of the twentieth century. She had a wonderfully warm tone reminiscent of Shura Cherkassky, but this was coupled with a piercing intelligence and a delightful generosity of spirit. Her great love of music was transmitted in every performance she gave, and her recitals were always greeted with enthusiasm by her army of ardent admirers. The greatest Bach player of her generation, an undisputed authority on the music of Shostakovich and a musician of the highest capabilities, Nikolayeva will be fondly remembered through her public appearances and many recordings.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist